Gerry Sutcliffe: A betrayal of Olympic promises on sport in schools

Jessica Ennis
Jessica Ennis
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IT has been more than a year since Ministers first announced their intention to dismantle the sports infrastructure put in place by the previous Labour Government to deliver our commitment to increase participation.

It had a clear structure – the Youth Sport Trust was set up to deal with school and youth sport; Sport England was set up to deal with community sport through national governing bodies; and UK Sport was set up to deal with the elite level – and it was renowned around the world.

It has also been more than a year since the Government announced that they were ending funding for school sports partnerships and scrapping ring-fenced funding for specialist sports colleges.

Next Tuesday will be the first anniversary of the partial U-turn when the Government was forced to introduce a hastily cobbled-together package of funding.

Why did I call this debate?

Twelve months on, the threat to the future of school sport has not dissipated. In fact, the cuts announced last year will devastate the national sport structure that was the envy of the world, and new threats have emerged which have the potential to create a perfect storm for school sports.

The army of volunteers within our schools and sports clubs are getting on with making the best of a bad deal. We take that army for granted, but on their shoulders rests much of our country’s sporting life.

Those volunteers might not be the type to march on Whitehall, but they are still angry, confused and frustrated by the Government’s seeming indifference to their work. Their voice deserves to be heard.

Why does it matter if our kids do not play sport or do PE at school? Children who play sports do not only benefit physically, because research shows that involvement in sport helps general educational attainment.

Sport helps young people to develop self-discipline and to learn how to get along with others. Involvement in sport can help tackle anti-social behaviour and youth crime and overcome psychological problems and loneliness. It can also help to tackle problems of bullying in school and help youngsters with disabilities enjoy sport with other children. Furthermore, children get those benefits whether or not they excel at sport.

They do not need to be part of the sporting elite, because merely participating makes children healthier, happier and better pupils.

We also cannot have a debate about any aspect of sport, particularly sport and young people, without mentioning the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

In Singapore six years ago, when London was awarded the Games, we made a solemn commitment that we would use the games to inspire a generation of young people through sport.

It was a crucial element of London’s bid and set us apart from our main rivals, Paris and Madrid. How can we be serious about that if we are downgrading our commitment to sport in schools?

London 2012 has given us an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave a lasting sporting legacy, not of stadiums and facilities, important though they are, but of a new generation of young people for whom sport and physical activity are an integral part of their lives.

The situation is not irretrievable, but the threats to school sport are so great and serious that Ministers must ask themselves how they intend to meet the commitments to ensure an Olympic legacy.

I was proud to serve as Sports Minister from 2007 to 2010, but I was even prouder that we made sport a cross-departmental policy priority during our 13 years in government.

We were proud of being able to widen the range of sports on offer. Mountaineering, canoeing, sailing, cycling and so on get people out into different environments.

People who are not good at ball skills can get into cycling and other sports. We worked with those sports’ governing bodies to develop this framework. I am sad that that seems to be being reversed.

There was a cross-party consensus to see that delivered and developed. It was only after the election in 2010 that that consensus seemed to disappear.

Are we going to see a return to the ’80s and ’90s, where playing fields were seen merely as development opportunities to be sold to the highest bidder? What of the Government’s free schools policy? How will the Government meet the sports and PE offer for pupils attending free schools? How can the Government remain committed to sport and PE, if they are willing to allow free schools to open in buildings where there is no space for outdoor recreation? Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that free schools will not be exempt from providing sport and PE as part of their curriculum?

It is a source of great personal sadness to me to see much of the work on school sport that we did in government undone in such a brutal and senseless fashion. That has been sanctioned by people at the top of Government, who have little or no understanding of the power of sport to change lives.

Yet, last week, I was amazed to hear that an extra £40m could be found for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic games, which is one quarter of the budget for school sports partnerships.

What message does the Minister think that that sends out to the hundreds of sports staff losing their jobs, to the volunteers who give their time and money, and to the pupils hoping to emulate their Olympic heroes?

There is still a great opportunity here. I hope that it is not lost.

Gerry Sutcliffe is the Labour MP for Bradford South and a former sports minister. This is an edited version of a speech that he delivered in a Parliamentary debate this week.